Robert Rihmeek Williams may be free but millions of other young, black and brown men just like him are not—and that’s no coincidence. After a lengthy legal battle and an outpouring of national support, the 30-year-old Philadelphia rapper better known as “Meek Mill” was released from jail on April 24. The hip-hop star was sentenced last November to two to four years behind bars for a series of minor, non-violent probation violations, following his 2008 conviction for drug and weapons charges. One of the violations included performing a motorcycle stunt while shooting a music video in New York in August 2017.
Meek Mill Becomes a Symbol of Injustice
The sentence sparked mass outrage among fans, celebrities, professional athletes, prison reform activists, and the hip-hop community at large. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in Philadelphia, signed online petitions, and stood behind the #FreeMeekMill campaign. They argued that the harsh punishment was unwarranted and rooted in racism. For many, the hip-hop star became a symbol of discrimination within the U.S. criminal justice system, which predominantly impacts men of color.
Following his release last week, Williams vowed to help others trapped in the cycle of recidivism. “I understand that many people of color across the country don’t have that luxury [to fight justice] and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues,” he tweeted.
Williams’ case is not unusual. According to reports, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. After being convicted of a crime, offenders are then often subjected to parole or probation and years of court-ordered supervision. As a result, even a small violation can send them back to prison for a long time. This policy disproportionately affects African American men who compromise one-third of the 4.6 million Americans currently on parole or subject to probation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Overall, 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated compared to 1 in every 36 Hispanic men and 1 in every 106 white men. But, not only are these men being stripped of their time and families, corporations are making billions of dollars in exchange for their freedom.
The Birth of the Private Prison Industry
According to an Urban Justice Center report, the private prison industry began when CoreCivic was granted the first contract to operate a correctional facility in 1983. The GEO Group entered the private prison market the following year. Over the next three decades, the U.S. prison population increased five times, from approximately 500,000 to over 2.2 million between 1980 and 2015. The companies grew to own and operate roughly 130 correctional facilities with over 150,000 beds. By 2017, CoreCivic and The GEO Group were earning combined annual revenues of $4 billion on the more than 45 million individual nights that people spend incarcerated in their correctional facilities every year.
Profits Over People
CoreCivic and The GEO Group are the most recognized for-profit entities operating in the prison industrial complex, but there are hundreds more. In fact, a new report from the Urban Justice Center’s Corrections Accountability Project identifies more than 3,100 companies that earn revenue through contracts with the U.S. prison industrial complex. They all either knowingly or unknowingly generate profits through the criminal legal system on the backs of low-income and minority communities.
In a statement, Corrections Accountability Project director Bianca Tylek said the report serves to expose the corporations benefitting from mass incarceration beyond the two notorious private prison giants.
“There are thousands of publicly-traded, private equity-owned, and privately-held companies that generate profits through the criminal legal system on the backs of those it targets: low-income and minority communities,” Tylek said in an emailed statement.
“Until today, these companies have operated largely behind closed doors, often intentionally masking their involvement. Yet given the reach of the criminal legal system today, still others, have found themselves unintentionally wrapped up in the prison industrial complex. Nevertheless, both present an engagement opportunity for advocates fighting to shut down the industry and shift the economy that have been built around mass incarceration.”
Conduent (formerly Xerox Services), GE Healthcare, and Motorola Solutions are just a few of the companies listed that have a “business segment targeting the prison industrial complex in its business model or through marketing, advertising, or sponsorship,” reads the report. Corporate investors include Vanguard Group, Fidelity, and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance.
Other companies listed include Universal Health Services, Duke Energy, National Grid and The Home Depot, which provides equipment for prisons. Thomson Reuters, Timberland, T-Mobile, Microsoft Corp. Office Depot., OfficeMax, Time Warner Cable, Apple Industrial Supply, and Bank of America.
Read the full report: The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players.
Editor’s Note: This article originally published on May 2, 2018